An artist, canvas and society

Well known for his concept of ‘barrelism’, artist Chandragupta Thenuwara discusses the importance of combining artistic expression with social responsibility
By Shalomi Daniel

“An artist is not only responsible to the canvas, an artist is accountable to society too,” artist Chandragupta Thenuwara says earnestly adding that “only then are you an ‘artist’!” For him, art is much more than a hobby or source of pleasure; it is an important tool which he uses to address social issues.
Returning to Sri Lanka in the early 1990s after completing his studies abroad, Chandragupta Thenuwara found his country still in the grip of a civil war.

Chandragupta Thenuwara

“As an artist you see so many issues that can be addressed. It is up to you to choose an issue to highlight,” he says. He began to focus on war and its terrible consequences. “Humans became a mere identity card number. They lost their freedom as a result of war,” he says adding that humans who are born free have a right to live free.

Exploring this stream of thought further, he focused on the concept of ‘barrelism’ through which he questioned the presence of military barrels. His aim was to show that the mere presence of the barrels did not bring about peace or prevent bombs from going off. He also used this theme to show how certain objects can affect cultural patterns.

His creative talents and sincere desire to safeguard human rights, prompted him to venture in to the theme of the ‘human cost of war’. He explains that while during the war it was all about dead people, now, after the war, it is all about the memories of those dead. He gave vent to these ideas in his recent exhibition, producing a powerful work - a wall with about 200 images, with two mirrors on either side reflecting the endless loss caused by war.

In the present post-war period he believes that the end of war is only part of the solution and that there is much more to be done. Holding a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree from the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, Art and Design Department (as the University where Chandragupta now lectures at was previously called), a Masters in Fine Arts from Russia and a Masters in Philosophy from the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology (under the University of Kelaniya), he founded the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts in 1993. The Academy started off with part time courses and in 1995 included full time courses as well.

“I founded this Academy as there are many people who have the talent but due to various reasons have missed their chances of a higher education,” he explained. Anyone above the age of 15 can join the Academy where drawing, painting and sculpture is taught. There are special child art programmes for those under 15 too.

He stresses that learning the basics is important- as important as learning the alphabet to speak a language. “The more knowledge you have the better your art work” is his advice to budding artists.

“You have to be broad-minded and you need to have social consciousness,” he says adding that an artist is someone who helps people understand the world around them. He sees much talent in Sri Lanka and feels that more opportunities should be made in order to develop those talents.

Chandragupta Thenuwara is currently focusing on nontraditional art work called ‘Installation’ which is neither painting nor sculpture. The art work which is three dimensional is site specific he says, and thus suits the specific place for which it is created.

Human Rights Logo Competition

In line with his interest in social issues and human rights, Chandragupta Thenuwara was also involved in the International Human Rights Logo competition.

As there is no internationally recognized symbol for human rights the “Logo for Human Rights” initiative was established to provide a peaceful contribution towards the global spread and implementation of human rights.

A global online competition was organized and many young Sri Lankans too participated in the event, which was facilitated in Sri Lanka by the Goethe Institute. As a resource person for the competition here, he held discussions on human rights while offering help, advice and give useful tips to the young artists.

Ten finalists have now been announced and voting which started on August 27 will be open until September 17. So, log on to and start voting now!

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